This week, Bill Clinton remarked how those buildings hold special meaning for visitors from around the world, celebrating the grandest accomplishments of man, and how one stands out as the nation's "conscience."
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum celebrates its 20th anniversary this week. Not everyone thought at the time that building a Holocaust Museum so close to the national mall was a good idea, but it has welcomed more than 34 million visitors since, testifying to a universally humbling recognition of a dark piece of human history and presenting a daunting challenge to the world in the phrase "never again."
In a moving ceremony in the company of a thousand survivors of the Holocaust, the former president focused on the memorial museum's relevance to our present day. Although 99.5 percent of the human DNA links every human to the others with virtually identical genes, the former president observed that the masses tend to dwell on the half of 1 percent of separation "that makes us vulnerable to the fever, the sickness that the Nazis gave to the Germans." It is that virus which we can see taking form today in our interdependent world "that is the biggest threat to our children and grandchildren."
The former president's words sound all the more menacing to anyone watching a YouTube video recorded from Iqra TV in Saudi Arabia. In it, a bright-eyed, plump-cheeked 3-and-a-half-year-old girl in a white hijab is carefully programmed to answer a female interviewer's questions:
"Are you a Muslim? " the interviewer asks.
"Yes," the little girl replies.
"Do you know the Jews?"
"Do you like them?"
"Why don't you like them?"
"Because they are apes and pigs."
"Who said that about them?"
"Where did he say it?"
This is not an unusual video; others similar to it are found scattered on television networks throughout the Middle East and are well-documented by Neil J. Kressel, director of the honors program in the social sciences at William Patterson University in New Jersey. He focuses chilling attention on them in his new book, "The Sons of Pigs and Apes." Kressel is concerned that many in the West refuse to look at the way anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism have become synonymous.
His fears are echoed in Commentary magazine, which takes to task journalists and academics in the West who conceal Jew-hatred or act as though it doesn't exist.
When Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi described Zionists who return Palestinian fire as "bloodsuckers ... descendants of ape and pigs," The New York Times dismissed the remark as unimportant, that it was spoken when the Egyptians were beset with grief after a conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
The Times account erred, given the actual dates; it was an outrageous excuse in any event. Many journalists and academics similarly excuse Muslim hatred of Jews as based on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, when much closer to the truth is a remark by a prominent Egyptian cleric that Jews "aren't our enemies because they occupy Palestine, they would be our enemies even if they had not occupied anything."
Eli Wiesel, the founding chairman of the museum, calls the Holocaust a "black hole" in the collective memory. Silence easily becomes a tool of the tormentor. Silence has many guises -- in omission, on blank pages, in empty spaces between words. Only 13 years ago, museum researchers crunching the numbers in the carefully preserved arithmetic of "the final solution" were astonished to discover the staggering number of ghettos, slave labor sites, concentration camps and killing factories the Nazis spread throughout Europe. Asks Wiesel, "Why was there no public outcry of indignation and outrage?"
"The Diary of Anne Frank" was the first major book to give the Holocaust its agonized human face. In the novel "Ghost Writer," Philip Roth imagines that Anne didn't die, but decided to keep her existence a secret. Alive, she was merely another teenager with a diary; dead, she assumed the power to teach a moral lesson. What exactly that lesson is remains a matter of dispute.
When the Holocaust Memorial Museum was opened two decades ago, on a bright spring day with the cherry blossoms in bloom nearby to mark the beginning of a glorious Washington spring, Eli Wiesel spoke of his vision, engraved in stone at the entrance to the edifice: "For the dead and the living, we must bear witness." Would we, if called on, have the will to do more?